'If women like me don't talk about it, who will?' the author and television personality tells EW and PEOPLE editorial director Jess Cagle

By Christopher Rosen
March 08, 2016 at 02:37 PM EST

Padma Lakshmi says she was sexually abused as a child by a friend of her then-stepfather.

“Something happened to me that happens to a lot of girls everywhere,” Lakshmi, whose new memoir Love, Loss, And What We Ate is out now, told EW and PEOPLE editorial director Jess Cagle as part of a new Jess Cagle Interview. “I think my mother wanted to put distance between me and the relative who was living with us who was inappropriate with me. I didn’t understand it then.”

Asked by Cagle if she was “molested,” Lakshmi said yes. “I talk about it because it was certainly the first time it happened. I think once you take a girl’s innocence you can never get it back,” she said. “What I remember more is telling my mother what happened and her believing me, and then she and I telling someone else that it happened, and that person not believing me. The next week, I was sent to India.”

Laksmhi was 7 years old at the time of the incident, and lived in a Queens, New York apartment with her mother, stepfather, and the family friend. “One night,” she writes in the memoir, “I woke up to [the friend’s hand] in my underpants. He took my hand and placed it inside his briefs. I don’t know how many times it happened before, since I suspect I slept through some incidents.”

Laksmhi says she’s speaking out now about the abuse because “if women like me don’t talk about it, who’s going to?”

“I think about all those girls I pass on the street who are in elementary school,” she said. “I think about my daughter’s classmates or my daughter. It happens. It happens a lot. It happens more than we think. It happens to seven out of 10 girls or women at some point in some way in their lives.”

While Laksmhi said she doesn’t think about her own abuse “that much anymore,” she acknowledges that it was a “catalyst” for many parts of her own life. “It was the catalyst for my mother’s divorce, it was catalyst for me going to India, it was the catalyst for me being less open about my body and the world,” she said. “It was a loss of innocence in a way. What happened to me was not even that bad compared to what happens to many young girls and boys. But it was something that happened. I didn’t want to dwell on it.”

Watch the interview above.